Actionable insights: turning data into outcomes
How two educational associations are using good data governance to benefit their members.
These days, every association is collecting data – and it can feel more like a headache than an opportunity.
“Many schools don’t know how to use their data effectively,” says David Buley, CFO of Association of Independent Schools NSW (AISNSW). “But, in the future, the schools with the best data will win out.”
The problem is that data is of little value until it’s been distilled into actionable insights – information that supports sound decision-making and drives meaningful change.
What are "actionable insights"?
The term “actionable insights” is often misused and misunderstood, confused with data and information. In fact, actionable insights are a distillation of both – those highly-prized nuggets of information that are so relevant to your goals and closely aligned with your strategies that you can use them to shape future outcomes.
Kwame Wetsi, Chief Data Officer at Catholic Schools NSW (CSNSW) sees data as the new currency.
“We need to treat it like the asset it is and make data strategy a priority,” he says. “In any environment, a critical decision based on poor-quality data could be disastrous – and that’s why data governance is such a big enabler. When you’re confident that your insights are drawn from data that is fit for purpose – complete, accurate, reliable and up-to-date – you’re in the best position to make trusted decisions.”
Unlike many physical assets, high-quality data can actually appreciate in value.
“Over time, you can use it more meaningfully, combine it with data from other trusted sources and monetise it,” says Wetsi. “Uber, for example, cleverly maximised the value of data by bringing together consumers and suppliers of ridesharing data to build a billion-dollar business empire. An association might use actionable insights to identify patterns of website use then redesign it to attract more traffic, turning it into a powerful marketing tool.”
Each year the CSNSW receives a lump sum from the government which must be distributed fairly among almost 600 schools. The Association also has to allocate funds for improving facilities and increasing classroom capacity to cope with projected growth. This requires reliable forecasting.
“The most influential metric in this area is enrolment numbers but other information is also relevant,” says Wetsi. “Now we can analyse all the data we receive so we have a much clearer and more accurate picture of where the money needs to go.”
CSNSW has also found that actionable insights enhance longer-terms decision-making.
“There’s good evidence that statistics collected in early childhood data can predict how individual children will perform throughout their time at school,” Wetsi says. “Identifying where interventions might be needed, and the form they should take, could make an enormous difference to a child’s future as well as the school’s reputation.”
Forging links between finance and IT
Buley believes more opportunities will be unleashed with benchmarking.
“At the moment, individual schools have access to academic performance data but are limited because they only have access to their own financial & operational performance data,” he says. “The real power will come from being able to benchmark their data with that of other schools. To do that, they must be able to collect data from many sources and extract the insights that are relevant to them.”
His intention for the Index program was to build a secure data capture portal that would allow independent schools to enter financial, operational, enrolment, and perhaps even some limited academic and even governance data into the platform and then compare this with de-identified data.
“This would allow them to see whether their operational or financial characteristics were above, below or right on average,” he says. “But averages aren’t always useful as performance goals so we also need the ability to feed a benchmark or target figure into the data sets. The end goal is to improve the financial governance at schools using contemporary data visualisation tools that will help business managers demonstrate to the Principal and board where they are operating satisfactorily and, perhaps, where they need to improve.”
The current beta version has a small number of working survey sets.
“This will provide enough incentive for school business managers to conceptualise the potential usefulness of the platform,” says Buley. “At the moment we have only limited data but we’re anticipating that, when we launch, the tool will be accepted by independent schools in NSW and then, hopefully, in other states.”
He believes that simply introducing the tool will make schools more aware of the potential benefits of using data to support decision-making.
“Many schools still determine strategy according to gut feel rather than evidence,” he says. “Helping improve the governance around decisions by using existing data is a positive. And, as the take-up rate improves, we’re confident we’ll be asked to add other surveys and develop longitudinal data sets that can be used to forecast trends.”
Paying close attention to costs
Wetsi has no doubts about the value of a well-chosen investment in data governance and analysis.
“For any association the benefits of using good quality data include better and faster service, quicker turnaround and, overall, lower costs,” he says. “And, of course, there’s the added value of better and trusted decision-making.”
Buley adds that, as a not-for-profit (NFP) association, AISNSW works hard for its funds.
“We need to ensure we get value for the money we invest in projects to assist member schools,” he says. “In this case, to ensure costs were contained, we spent a lot of time internally and with Clade developing the scope of works. I wanted to ensure we had a good idea of the types of data we would collect and how we would best represent that data visually through a secure web platform.”
For the future, Buley hopes that the Index platform will be approved to capture financial and enrolment data from schools which can then be sent along to the Department of Education securely and electronically.
“The independent education sector is quite highly regulated and schools have to comply with requests for various performance data as part of the accountability requirements for the funding they receive,” he says. “So moving towards a digital ecosystem which provides for an “enter once, use many” functionality represents a worthwhile investment for the Association.”
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